Themes of the Exhibition
In the early 1900s, against a backdrop of social change, war and revolution, a generation of Russian artists sought to make a new kind of art that was powerful, authentic and modern. While some turned to peasant subjects and folk art for inspiration, Marc Chagall made paintings that evoked his Jewish roots, his family and his inner life.
This exhibition explores for the first time the relationship between Chagall and his Russian contemporaries, tracing their paths from Russia to France and Germany and back again. It highlights their shared sources of inspiration, the way they embraced new artistic directions before and during World War I, and how, fuelled by the Russian Revolution of 1917, many turned to art as an engine of radical social change. The exhibition also reveals how the artists forged unique contributions to modern art, as their paths diverged.
Russia: In Search of Roots
Prior to 1910, many young Russian artists sought a new and stronger language of expression. They were inspired by rural life and authentically Russian traditions, such as icons, folk art, wood prints, store signs, toys and embroideries, with their bold patterns, colours and forms. These artists eagerly absorbed the ideas in the avant-garde paintings of Western European artists like Paul Gauguin (then on view in Moscow and St. Petersburg), finding a similar vibrancy and expressive power in their work. Goncharova and Larionov developed these ideas in Moscow, while Kandinsky and Jawlensky brought these discoveries to Munich.
Artistic Advances in Paris and Russia, 1911–1914
“The sun of art shone only in Paris,” Chagall once said. He moved there in 1911, settling in La Ruche (French for “the beehive”), a complex of more than 100 studios. There he lived alongside many immigrant Russian artists including Archipenko, Zadkine and Lipchitz, whose works are also featured in this gallery. Chagall immediately sought out the work of Paris’s most radical French painters such as Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse. Full of excitement, Chagall solidified a new artistic language of vivid colour, distorted space and geometric forms. Yet his paintings remained rooted in the human figure and his beloved Vitebsk. His approach differed from the more radical experimentation of his Russian contemporaries (back home and in Paris), whose works became increasingly abstract.
Return to Russia
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 prompted many Russian artists to return home from abroad. “Vitebsk – I came back to it with emotion. I painted everything I saw,” Chagall wrote. Despite the war, these were perhaps the happiest and most productive years of his career. Newly married and soon to be a father, he revelled in his young family, the rituals of his Jewish community and, following the Revolution in 1917, new freedom and hope.
Vasily Kandinsky, also returned to Russia from Europe with his wife. The couple settled on a cousin’s idyllic country estate near Moscow, which offered a wealth of pastoral subjects. His homecoming rekindled his focus on Russian scenery and landscape while he continued to explore abstract painting.
Art and Revolution
“Build a new world!” cried the young artists. Liberated by Russia’s Revolution of 1917, they began to transform a dream of social equality into reality. For those dedicated to the Constructivist movement, art was no longer a bourgeois luxury but rather a political tool meant for the street, the factory, the worker and the masses.
The Soviet state harnessed the energies of painters, sculptors, photographers and architects to carry its message of equality and freedom to its citizens. The Constructivists no longer found themselves at the periphery of society. In 1918 Chagall became Arts Commissar for the province of Vitebsk and founded the Vitebsk People’s Art College, but soon his personal subjects seemed out of step with the radical new world of politics, industry and geometric abstraction.
Chagall's World of the Theatre and the Circus
“It is a magic word, circus, a timeless dancing game of tears and smiles.” Since childhood, Chagall had been fascinated by the circus and theatre. Jewish theatre production had been forbidden before the 1917 revolution. In the early 1920s, however, with the founding of Moscow’s Jewish Chamber Theatre, Chagall designed costumes, sets and murals that expressed Russia’s new social, political and religious freedoms. In subsequent decades he returned repeatedly to the theme of the circus for inspiration. “For me, a circus is a magic show, disturbing, profound. I have always looked upon clowns, acrobats and actors as beings with a tragic humanity.” Yet Chagall’s circus animals and figures seem to mirror life’s sorrows and its joys, as they float in a fantastical world of colours that glow like stained glass.